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NEW CASTLE – The Shelby County boys’ basketball team nearly pulled off a miracle comeback Friday night.
The Rockets’ rally ultimately fell short, though, as Simon Kenton outlasted them, 76-69, in the first round of the 8th Region Tournament at Henry County.
Shelby County trailed by 20 points with 3 minutes, 43 seconds to play before staging a colossal comeback, closing to within one with 46 seconds left.
The Pioneers, however, scored the final six points of the game.
“They’d be talking about that in Henry County for decades [if we won],” Rockets Coach Jason Couch said.
Simon Kenton then followed up its victory over Shelby County with a 60-57 upset of 29th District champ Oldham County in Monday night’s semifinals. The Pioneers faced South Oldham in Tuesday night’s region final.
The Rockets, coming off their first district title in 4 years, couldn’t overcome 32 points by Simon Kenton senior forward Taylor Morrison and 31 fouls, including three technicals.
“We had so much adversity, I don’t know if I’ve seen a team face so much adversity,” Couch said.
Sophomore point guard Malik Manica tallied a team-high 23 points for Shelby County (16-15).
Sophomore forward James Gordon scored 40 seconds into the game to give the Rockets their lone lead. The Pioneers (14-13 after the victory) scored the next 10 points, eight by Morrison on a pair of 3-pointers and a 2-pointer.
Shelby County, also making its first regional appearance in 4 years, struggled shooting the ball early – missing some close-in shots as it went 5-for-14 in the first period.
The Rockets, who trailed, 15-10, by the end of the first quarter, stayed in it, though, closing to 28-25 by halftime.
Shelby County cut that deficit to two (29-27) on Kipp Moore’s rebound basket with 5:36 to play in the third period, but then things fell apart. Simon Kenton scored 17 straight points. In the middle of that surge Couch was whistled for a technical foul.
“I’m passionate. I make a lot of faces, but that’s the first technical I’ve gotten all year,” he said.
Morrison tallied 10 in a row in that spurt – hitting a 3-pointer, one of two free throws after the T on Couch, then two more 3s.
Grant Vercheak’s two free throws followed that last one, making it 46-27.
The Rockets, though, weren’t finished, outscoring the Pioneers, 11-1, to close the third quarter down 47-38 following reserve Aaron Holder’s basket with 4 seconds to play.
Simon Kenton retook the momentum at the start of the fourth quarter, scoring the first eight points of the period (including one after Shelby County assistant coach Charles Hurt was whistled for a technical while sitting on the bench). The Pioneers’ lead reached 20 after Matt Mullins hit a pair of free throws with 3:43 to play.
The Rockets again wouldn’t fold and outscored Simon, 24-5, during a span of 2:57 on the strength of two 11-0 runs.
“We just kept playing, playing to survive. They weren’t ready for it to be over,” Couch said. “As a coach all you can ask for is your guys to keep fighting.”
Said Moore: “We never gave up.”
The Pioneers hit four free throws in the middle of that Shelby surge after Manica was called for a technical foul, which was his fifth foul, after reacting (jumping up) to being whistled for his fourth foul with 2:18 to play. After Brenan Kuntz hit that quartet of foul shots the Rockets reeled off 11 in a row – Kyler Dugle hit two free throws,
Moore hit a pair, then scored and was fouled after stealing the ensuing in-bounds pass. He missed that free throw, but the Rockets got the rebound, and Dugle scored and was fouled. He hit the foul shot, making it 70-69 with 46.5 seconds left.
On the ensuing possession, the Rockets tried to foul Kuntz, who had missed five of his seven foul shots, but couldn’t get the call. Morrison scored inside with 39 seconds to play, then Moore’s shot was blocked and recovered by the Pioneers, who hit four free throws in the final 27 seconds while the Rockets missed a trio of 3-point tries.
Manica finished 8-for-13 from the field, including 2-of-2 from 3-point range, and Shelby County shot 43.9 percent (25-for-57) from the field. The Rockets made 17 of 28 from the foul line.
By comparison, Simon Kenton had 22 field goals (including nine 3-pointers) and was 23-for-46 from the free-throw line.
Gordon added 15 points, including nine in the fourth quarter, and Dugle 11, six in the final period.
“We can’t complain,” Manica said of the free-throw shooting disparity. “We’ve just got to play the game.”
The loss ended a resurgent season for the Rockets, who equaled their combined victory total of the past two seasons despite starting 0-8.
“Everybody doubted us. They said we couldn’t make it to region. We proved them wrong,” Manica said.
“From where we came from last year and then the way we started this year I’ve got some great, positive feelings about this team and what they did,” Couch said.
The Rockets should return five of their top six scorers: Gordon (13.1 points per game), Dugle (9.3 ppg), junior forward Keenan Cochran (9.3 ppg), Manica (8.9 ppg) and Kemar Mason (4.9 ppg).
“It’s going to make us work harder and try to be better,” Cochran said.
Said Couch: “We’ve got a bright future. But we’ve got to find leadership. Kipp and Aaron both led us. They led us in different ways, but we’ve got to find out who is going to replace them.”